Sunday, September 25, 2011

A Tale of Two Tools

In a small school, not too far away, two tech tools hesitantly stepped into a classroom of excited fifth graders. The anxious fifth graders were sitting in pairs with net-books at their fingertips awaiting a new that could make them experts. The first tool, Lit2Go boldly stepped up first.

Lit2Go knew his power. He has hundreds of pieces of literature to share with the world. They are in print and MP3 and he can find what anyone needs whether by author, title, reading level, or subject matter. If those don't work, he also has the power to search by keyword. He's confident in his abilities to put quality literature into the hands of every student.

The students excitedly put Lit2Go to good use and found examples of 71 different fables to read, listen to and discuss with their partners.But where would these students put their new-found knowledge? That's when Lit2Go remembered his friend who had come into the classroom with him. He looked around and saw Lino-it waiting patiently for her turn.

Lit2Go called, "Hey, Lino-it! These kids need you. They have all of these new discoveries about writing in the fable genre, but they have nowhere to put all of this new knowledge. Can you help them?"

"You know, I'm the master of organizing important things. They can put post-it notes on me and I'll help them collaboratively build a wall that they can use day after day while they are writing," Lino-it confidently replied.

Together Lit2Go and Lino-it worked to help these fifth graders become experts at analyzing and creating fables of their own.The students loved that they had a plethora of fables to read and learn from. They were thrilled about how they could individualize the look and organization of their post-its on Lino-it, building their own tool to help them create fables for their collaborative fable anthology project.

At the end of class, Lit2Go and Lino-it gave each other a high-five, "Smack!" They knew that they had done their job and supported the learning and discovery of an amazing group of fifth grade students. These students were now fable-writing experts thanks to their support. They look forward to teaming up again whenever the need arises.They wave "good-bye" to the class as they set out in search of another class that may need their support.

The moral of this story is that powerful student learning is enhanced by quality tools like Lit2Go and choose wisely.

(PS My students..who have discovered this blog...may point out that I missed a few of the characteristics that they discovered about fable writing in my little fable here. That's fine with me...they are the experts now.)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

What is Writing?

I was recently sitting  in a grade level data meeting. As usual, I sit and listen, often keeping my comments to myself as my opinions and viewpoints are often counterproductive to the mission of the people driving these meetings. However, as the discussion turns to standardized testing, the comment was made that the students could not write as evidenced on the recent scores.   What they were calling writing is the portion where students answer an open-ended test question in reading or math. Yes, they physically have to use a pencil to compose an answer, but is that really writing?

I continued to sit and listen until I finally had to jump in.What they were describing is not writing unless you are calling the action of using a pencil to compose words on a page writing. Now don't get me wrong. My students do well on open-ended questions. I teach them a basic formula for answering this type of question that even my lowest of students can use with success.

When I expressed my opinion that what they were describing was not writing, I was met with confused faces. I honestly don't think they had ever thought about the true difference in the physical act and the craft. Unfortunately, the only "writing" that is given any credence is the writing that is done for standardized testing.

Not only was I irritated that they refused to listen, but I worried about the students who would never know the thrill of composing something that reaches others or helps them to explore who they are as people. What if students aren't given the opportunity to create something new and communicate it to others through their writing? Think about all of the ways that we write every day...mostly using a keyboard or touch screen. Students do it everyday through texting, messaging in games, blogging, Facebook, etc. Shouldn't they have the opportunity to learn how to amplify their voice through the written word at school?

This was still bothering me when my students and I returned to the classroom. So I asked them to explain through their blogs what writing is to them. It was not an assignment, just a request. I just wondered if my 10 year old students understood what teachers missed. Here are three examples of what I found:
I think we write so we can first of all learn. The only way we can learn certain things is by reading. Another reason we read and write is to express our feelings about different topics. Two more reasons that I think we write are to share our learned findings with other people and to explain how to do things. Everyone should write. ~LH
What is inspired writing?  Inspired writing is a good way to connect to your conscience. The hardest part of inspired writing is allowing the writing to happen instead of questioning what people will think about it. But how do I know my writing is true? It’s what speaks to me that’s true. When I write I think about what would interest my readers about this writing or what could make it better, but I also must be true to myself. I hope you begin writing with the intention to share your soul or the thoughts that amaze you.  ~KV 
When I write I like to express what I think about the question or the answers I write down.  Also, some grown ups don’t like to write anything even sometimes for work.  Writing is fun to me  because when you write you can express your feelings in it. That is why I like poetry. ~KA 
Do my students understand the importance writing? Is it more than the physical act of picking up a pencil or pen and putting it to paper? You can tell from these three examples (I could have put many more) that they each understand not only what writing is but also why we write.

I recently read that one of the biggest downfalls of students today is their inability to communicate. One of the biggest ways that we can communicate with one another is to write.. compose, create, explore. So no matter what age group or content area, please encourage your students to write. So even if you feel uncomfortable as a writing teacher, I hope that the quote below will give you something to think about.
We write because my teacher said so. We write to prepare for standardized testing. We write to explore who we are, to connect to those in the world around us, and to create something new.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

An Update to the Reading Log Conundrum

A while back, I wrote about our school's nonnegotiable practice of requiring every student to complete a reading log and how I felt like it was counterproductive to a student developing a real love of reading. Here's the original post. Since then, I've had quite a few people question me about that blog and request an update.

As I wrote earlier, my students started off the year blogging. One of the expectations that my students designed was that their individual blogging would replace the dreaded reading log, among other things. In fact, most of them have taken to it like a fish to water. A few others have needed to have a bit of encouragement that their voices were important enough to be heard.

Now, I realize that I have a totally different set of students with totally different needs than my previous class. However, this is one of he most diverse classes that I've been fortunate enough to work with. With that in mind, I want to share with you what I've observed.

When my students complete an activity, project, or assignment, they are much more likely to pick up a book and read. Shortly after they've read a few minutes, they ask to use the computers so that they can blog. (As an aside, the students don't have to ask me to use the computers. It's a hang over from previous years.) When I finally asked one of my students about their willingness to read as often as he was, he said, "Well, in my last blog post, I told about what was happening in my book and made a prediction. Three people commented on my post and asked me questions. I had to find the answers so that I could answer their comments."

My students have discovered what has escaped so many, well-meaning educators: Having an interactive conversation about a book, even through writing, provides students a reason to read and write. It's so simple really. How many of want to share something great we've read with others? Isn't that what we see so much of on Twitter? How about all of the book clubs that people have? All of those speak to the fact that we like to talk about what we've read. We want to share our discoveries with others. It's real, it's relevant, and it's fun!

...and as a side note, I'm finding a ton of new books to read, all reviewed by my 5th graders!

So is it working? Absolutely! However, if at any time it doesn't work, my learners know that we will stop, have a discussion, find a solution, update our blogging expectations, and move forward. I love that my students have taken such ownership of their reading, writing, and blogging. It's exciting to see every day.